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Pioneering Kosen-rufu Lifetime After Lifetime

Pioneering Buddhism in Alabama, we have striven to lay a foundation of faith for our family and the future. We are Kathy and Steve Jaekle from Huntsville, Alabama.

Photo by Rachel Carter Photography

Living Buddhism: Kathy and Steve, thank you so much for speaking with us. With the spirit to pioneer Buddhist ideals, you moved from Washington, D.C., to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1976.

Steve Jaekle: We did, and with just $200 in our pockets.

What inspired you to join the pioneering efforts in Alabama?

Steve: Kathy grew up there, and I had visited to see her family several times before we moved. During those trips, I felt the importance of sharing Buddhism in the Bible Belt.

At that time, I had been practicing Buddhism for three years in the Washington D.C., area. I was encouraged by a friend to try chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to transform 

my work situation. The jobs I could get were day-to-day. I’d show up in a parking lot early each morning in the hopes of being chosen out of a group of 10–15 men to work with a moving crew. As one of the smaller guys, I was often overlooked. When I began waking up early to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to be picked for a day’s work, I found that I was picked regularly, which gave me confidence in myself and my Buddhist practice.

I participated in SGI youth activities with the spirit to say “yes” to whatever I was asked to do, and I saw my growth as a person. Huntsville, on the other hand, with its four SGI members, was very different. I felt this calling to a new frontier of the kosen-rufu movement.

Kathy Jaekle: I didn’t feel there was much of anything in Huntsville, then—a big military base, maybe, but not much else. On the bus ride back to D.C., after visiting my parents in Huntsville, I pressed Steve: “What do you mean we have a mission in Alabama? We have a life in D.C!”

Steve’s youthful enthusiasm was contagious. Soon, I felt what he was feeling: We have to bring Buddhism to Alabama!  That summer, we stuffed everything in our Volkswagen Beetle and moved.

Photo courtesy of Kathy and Steve Jaekle.

Kathy, your mother had joined the SGI before you did, but Steve, your father was an ordained Christian minister. What did he think of this venture to “bring Buddhism to Alabama”?

Steve: He thought it was a fad or rebellion against my Christian roots. It was neither, but I can’t blame him for not taking me seriously. I had dropped out of college three times and couldn’t hold down any job more than a few months. But through chanting, I felt energy, confidence and a sense of connection well up. In time, I realized I had found a practice in the SGI and a mentor in Ikeda Sensei that would enable me to overcome every obstacle I encountered. My commitment to SGI activities was in total contrast to my commitment to any other undertaking up until then. Over time, the commitment and confidence that I developed in the SGI would spill over into other endeavors, as a business owner, father, husband and son.

If we could show actual proof of the power of the practice here in Huntsville, I felt that we could help open a new chapter for kosen-rufu in America and throughout the world.

What a lofty dream! Steve, you started your own body shop in Huntsville, a business you are now handing off to your youngest son.

Steve: This has been a profound experience. My youngest son has always pushed me to place greater value on my work, insisting that it’s worth a higher fee. He has pushed me in other ways, too.

In 2010, at age 20, he was arrested, resulting in two years of drawn-out court proceedings that ended in 2012 with a one-year prison sentence. During those two years leading up to his sentence, our house was not pleasant. We were embroiled in this thing, all three of us, pointing fingers, blaming each other. But it was also at this time that he began to work with me in the shop. I used this time to have conversations with him and connect as father and son. He knew, deep within his life, that we were fighting for his happiness. We never gave up on him. Now he’s taking over the business, as a more skilled body worker than I ever was, and a truly warmhearted young man. This Mother’s Day was special.

Kathy: He brought me all these flowers and potted plants. He kept handing them off at the doorway, heading out and then coming back in with another bunch of flowers, another potted plant. Several years ago, that house was hellish with us three underneath the roof. What changed? It was the same house with the same three people, but we had changed. We learned to respect one another despite our differences, and love one another unconditionally.

That’s profound! Kathy, you are the Parents Group women’s leader for South Central Zone, a position in which you support families through all kinds of struggles.

Kathy: Yes, for us, our struggles began when we realized our first son had special educational needs. For my eldest, school became a battleground. I chanted for him to win. I chanted and studied, doing many rounds of student advocacy training. My goal was to become the most knowledgeable and capable advocate for my son. Soon, other parents were asking for my advice.

By the time of my son’s graduation, I had become a hired advocate for special needs children, and had traveled to over 20 schools across northern Alabama to give training and support programs that brought parents and teachers together. I would also do what were essentially home visits—meetings with the kids and their parents at their homes—to get to know what everyone was going through.

When my eldest son graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Marines, I continued working with youth. Each day at school was a struggle for him, but he persevered and won. Through his example, he taught me that when we never give up, we have an impact that goes beyond ourselves and families.

It seems that by fighting for your son, you were able to help many others.

Kathy: Yes. There is a passage in Nichiren’s writings that Steve and I are fond of, in which he describes how transforming one’s personal karma paves the way for others to do the same: “The situation is like the joints in a piece of bamboo: if one joint is ruptured, then all the joints will split” (“Letter to Horen,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 512).

By breaking through our family karma, we could help others break through their own. Another challenge began, however, when my son entered the Marines.

What happened?

Kathy: It was wonderful that he completed school but terrifying at the same time, especially after 9/11.

In 2003, he deployed as infantry to Iraq. I remember, the day after he left, I was handing out hotdogs at a school event. I remembered, as though it were yesterday, my son in a throng of kids like this one, clamoring for snacks. But I wouldn’t find him in this boisterous crowd. He wasn’t a child anymore, and he wasn’t here. He was in a foreign country, fighting a war.

Steve: I heard an evening news report, soon after our son deployed, of a huge shipment of body bags flown overseas in anticipation of U.S. casualties. I immediately sat down in front of the Gohonzon to chant, thinking, How many thousands of young people would die in this war?

Shaking with anger, I chanted. Chanting that evening, I sensed more deeply than ever that the cycle of violence and war had to be broken. And I felt deeply that the only way to end it was through a revolution in the human heart. Resolved to see out this revolution in my heart, in my family and my community, I began chanting, sharing Buddhism and supporting SGI activities with greater intensity than ever. In 2014, our son safely returned home. We were so happy to reunite and determined again to create a world without war through propagating Buddhism.

How did these experiences change you?

Steve: As I mentioned, before I began my practice, I had difficulty holding down a job. Through my years of practice in the SGI, however, I changed that. And my experiences as a father taught me what it meant to practice this Buddhism with the SGI and Sensei, with the spirit to end war and alleviate the suffering of others. And no one saw that transformation more clearly than my own father, who passed away in 2020, at 99.

What did your father ultimately think about your Buddhist practice?

Steve: Several years ago, he and my mom came with us to a conference at the SGI-USA Florida Nature Culture Center (FNCC). I invited them at Kathy’s urging, but I thought, No way are they gonna come. Not only did they come along, but they paid for the whole trip. The atmosphere at the FNCC is incredibly warm and diverse. My father has always celebrated people of various backgrounds coming together. So on the last night, I noticed him looking around, taking it in—people talking, laughing, connecting heart-to-heart—and he was visibly moved by the experience.

“You know what, I really see why you’re so into it,” he said.

The appreciation he felt that night only grew over the remaining years of his life.

At FNCC, Kathy and I walked out to the Millennium Monument off the shore of Toda Lake, where the names of Millennium Fund contributors are engraved beside guidance from Sensei.

Photo courtesy of Kathy and Steve Jaekle.

For our readers, the SGI-USA established the Millennium Fund to support and protect the financial future of kosen-rufu in America. Members who decide to include the SGI-USA as a beneficiary in a portion of their will, trust, retirement fund, life insurance plan or other assets become Millenium Legacy Society members.

Kathy: Right. We determined to contribute to the long-term foundation for kosen-rufu, 100 or even 1,000 years into the future.

Steve: When my father passed in 2020, he left us a sizeable inheritance, something neither I nor Kathy ever expected. We weren’t sure what we wanted to do with it. I had transformed my own work karma long ago, and both of us were ready to retire on our own savings. We decided that we wanted to financially contribute to the development of kosen-rufu beyond our lifetimes, so we included the SGI-USA in our will, becoming Millenium Legacy Society members.

Kathy: We felt that this was one more way we could express our appreciation to Sensei and the SGI for empowering us to transform our karma and develop a harmonious family.

Steve: It has been as a family that we have thoroughly forged our faith. It was as parents that we learned how to practice and, as a father that I showed proof to my own parents of the greatness of Buddhism and the SGI.

Kathy: We are determined to continue deepening our bonds with our three wonderful sons and grandchildren, and continue pioneering kosen-rufu with Sensei in lifetime and lifetime.

Photo courtesy of Kathy and Steve Jaekle.

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